Monday, 23 February 2015

Should academics be immune from losing their job

** Warning, non-shale gas-related post**

It's been a while since I last posted something not related to shale gas. Instead, in this post I want to discus some recent developments in the academic world.

There is uproar at Bristol University at the sacking of an academic (in the veterinary science department), apparently for failing to secure sufficient research funding. A campaign has been launched for her reinstatement, and it's been reported in local media as well as HuffPo.

This is not an isolated incident. Across the UK, universities are showing themselves willing to fire staff who are failing to bring in research grant money. For instance, staff at Warwick have been threatened with redundancy if they fail to bring in sufficient research income.

I've never been sacked or otherwise forced to leave a job in my life. Therefore I am aware that I am a position of privilege in this regard. I can only imagine the stress and hardship involved. On a personal level, I have every sympathy with Dr Hayman and any other academic threatened with the loss of their position.

However, I think it raises a few issues regarding my chosen profession that I'd like to discuss.

I am currently in a postdoctoral position at Bristol. Most post-docs move from short-term contract to short-term contract (and often from city to city, or even continent to continent to do so), with no job security. Being required to bring in a certain amount of research grant money may indeed put a tenured lecturer "under enormous pressure", as Dr Hayman describes. However, I sincerely doubt that the pressure is greater than that experienced by post-docs as they try to eke out a career in academia.

I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues as they continuously hunt out new opportunities, with the distant hope of one day reaching that holy grail of a permanent job somewhere (anywhere). Incidentally, post-docs may also be "the sole breadwinner", even more so perhaps because the requirement to move continuously from place to place often makes it very difficult for their partners to build a career of their own.

According to a recent Royal Society report, 30% of people who complete a PhD go on to an "Early Career Research" position. However, of that 30%, only 3.5% go on to get a permanent academic position. This is a huge issue for academia at present.

From the Epigram article, Dr Hayman's last funding award appears to be for £5,000 in 2012. This is barely enough to attend a couple of conferences abroad. Peanuts, in other words. For context, <humblebrag>I have been involved in some way or other (either as PI, Co-I, or writing a grant for my boss to put his name on top of) in over £600,000 worth of grant money awarded during my brief academic career, more than 100 times as much </humblebrag>.

In fact, the biggest surprise to me in the Epigram article is that there are 387 other permanent staff members who also have not brought in any funding in recent years. The job description for a "Pathway 1 Role Profile Level c" position - i.e. lecturer - is listed here, and you can see it includes the requirement to "identify potential funding sources and write, or help to write, bids for research funding".

Anyway, in the last few years I've applied for several permanent academic positions, thus far without success. I have no sour grapes and bear no grudges: in every case the candidate who got the job was better than me. And, incidentally, in almost every case also had a track record of bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding.

As above, I have every personal sympathy with academics who face losing their jobs. However, as one of thousands of young academics scrabbling from short-term contract to short-term contract, even when bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of research money, it's difficult to have any professional sympathy whatsoever when someone loses their job having only brought in £5,000 of funding. Perhaps there are a couple of post-docs waiting in the wings to replace Dr Hayman, with plans for grand and important research programs with the potential to bring in substantial research income. Is it not fair that they should be given that chance, rather than forced out of academia as incumbent staff sit on the choice positions instead?

There are a couple of broader questions to address here:

Should academics be immune from losing their job?
An argument sometimes made is that, once an academic has been appointed to a permanent position, she or he should never by sacked unless they have committed serious misconduct - sexually harassing a student, for example (it does happen, sadly). The basis behind this argument is the importance of academic freedom. It is important that academics are free to pursue their intellectual inquiries wherever they may take them. Sometimes a line of research simply never produces fruitful results.

However, I don't believe that the need for academic freedom means that an academic should never have to justify their position ever again. Pro-active, high quality researchers should be generating research outputs, regardless of whether they do blue skies research or applied research, and regardless of whether individual projects happen to succeed or fail. In any other job, if you are not meeting the expectations of your employer, you will be sacked. I believe that academics have to live with the pressures of the real world, just like everyone else. Otherwise, there is in theory no reason for an academic, once in a permanent position, ever to turn up for work again!

Is research grant income the best metric of success?
The first question is obvious, even though we often don't act like it (it is still very rare for a an academic in a permanent position to be removed). However, I accept that there may be good arguments for other, better metrics to use.

One metric is definitely not considered relevant, and that is teaching ability. Despite what many undergraduates may think, the primary role of academics is to produce top quality research, not to teach undergraduates. Every post-doc knows that it is their research metrics that will land them that permanent job, not their teaching ability. You could be the worst teacher ever (and I've experienced a few contenders first-hand), but if you've got a good research profile, it doesn't matter.

There is a case to be made for a new system where research and teaching career paths are more clearly defined and separate (i.e. you have teaching staff who only teach, and research staff who only do research, and very few staff who mix the two). However, such a system would probably be more expensive, because you'd need twice the staff for the same overall output. Anyway, we don't have that system now, so we are where we are, and it is your research that counts.

Academic metrics in general are a tricky thing. Numerous options exist, from impact factors, H-indices, REF scores, and grant income, to name a few. Estimating the quality of academic output is something of an intangible judgement call. In general, I would expect people with experience in the field to be capable of differentiating high and low-quality research programs. However, coming up with quick and easy metrics to quantify that difference isn't easy.

However, these things tend to correlate. While REF scores aren't solely based on journal publications (academics can have impact in other ways, through government policy and through contributions to industry, for example), an academic with a stack of papers in high impact journals is unlikely to fare badly at REF, and will likely accumulate a decent H-index over time. A track record of high impact research publications is also likely to translate into research funding success as well: if the editors of Science and Nature think someone's research is really interesting, then those on funding panels are, generally speaking, likely to think so too.

Ultimately, when departments hire someone on the basis of one or many of these metrics (or the intangible judgement call that we might replace them by), it is because they hope that a successful researcher is likely to bring in future grant money. So really, as far as administration is concerned, going straight to the funding record cuts out the middle men, especially once employees have been in place for a number of years.

I don't deny that grant success rates are low for some funding councils. NERC grant success rates are typically around the 20% mark, for example. And, yes, funding body decisions can be capricious. However, there are a lot of funding sources out there if you know where to look. This doesn't even have to include industry sources. For example, in the last few years our group has pulled in funding from UK research councils, but also from various EU grant-making bodies, from charities, and even from both the Canadian government and the US government. Yes, it can be a hard slog as you drag your research idea from potential funder to potential funder. But capable researchers are able to find ways to get their work funded.

Why does the money matter? Employing a staff member costs money, and the administrators need to ensure that the department's income equals or exceeds the total cost of running it. If the cost of running a department, a significant chunk of which is staff costs, exceeds the revenue it generates, then over the long term it will likely be faced with closure (and then everyone loses their jobs, regardless of their research metrics).

I will use my own department as an example. Bristol Earth Sciences is a fairly typical, medium-sized science department. We usually have about 200 - 250 undergrads spread over 4 years, and 40 full time academic staff. These students will be paying £9,000 per year. Taking a mid-range value (let's say 222 students, because it rounds easily), this gives us an income of £2,000,000 from student fees. Divided between 40 staff, this is an income from teaching of £50,000 per staff member, which is in the ball-park for a typical academic salary.

So student fees appear to just about cover staff costs. But remember, we also need to pay for buildings, electricity, heating, the internet, a library (with expensive journal subscriptions), teaching labs (and materials and equipment to go in the labs), employer's national insurance contributions, pension contributions, administrative staff, cleaning staff, computing facilities, a contribution to the university's central administration, contributions to capital funds to build new buildings or renovate existing ones. The list goes on and on.

Now, most departments will also receive the HEFCE block grant, which will offset some of these costs. But the overall equation stays the same: for a medium-sized science department, unless millions of pounds of research funding are brought in every year, then things soon become financially unsustainable.

Assume a department needs £2 million per year of research income. Divided between our 40 staff members, that's an average of £50,000 per staff member, which interestingly is in the similar to the requirements reportedly placed on Warwick's academics, which demonstrates that I'm in the right ball-park with my numbers here.

Finally, if staff aren't bringing in research grants, then a department will be able to fund only a small number of Ph.D. places, and no post-doc staff whatsoever. I suppose that'd solve the issue of post-docs to permanent jobs issue, but realistically I don't think it's a direction we want to be going! A department unable to offer post-doc opportunities isn't really conceivable. Yet most post-doc positions (such as mine) are funded by external research income from funding bodies.

So I don't think department administrators are obsessed with money because they're a bastard children of Scrooge McDuck and the Wolf of Wall Street. I think they're trying to ensure that their departments are financially viable, so that they stay open.

Now, the simple solution here is to provide more funding to universities. Ideally we'd have unlimited funding, and that way we could give permanent jobs to all the post-docs while keeping all our current permanent staff in jobs as well, regardless of research output. However, we must play the hand we've been dealt.

I have been involved in campaigns to persuade the government to increase (or at least keep constant and not cut) academic funding, and I urge you to do so too: increased funding for science is incredibly important in what is increasingly becoming a knowledge-based economy. However, there are many worthy causes in need of the public money, and not enough of it to go around. So we're unlikely to see huge increases in academic funding anytime soon, even in the most optimistic scenarios.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that the system is fair both to those currently in permanent positions, as well as those seeking those permanent jobs. I'll happily accept that there may be better metrics out there than grant income, however it must be accepted that ultimately grant income is very important for the continued success of a department. A system where, once given a permanent job, an academic cannot be replaced even where there are more productive candidates (by whatever metric you prefer) stuck on short-term contracts to the extent where they are leaving the field by the thousands, is not a fair system.


  1. 1. In 'the real world' no one is immune from losing their job.

    2. If if academics need to bring in sufficient research income, maybe they should attend Sales & Marketing courses, to hone their skills in being able to identify their unique strengths in order to 'sell' them to prospective buyers?

    3. Taking just one area of research "Climate", for instance, if a funder has preconceived ideas, should an academic prostitute him/herself to provide answers supporting the funder's objectives?

    4. If an academic publishes research (funded fully or in part from public funds), which is subsequently found to be in error, should taxpayers be entitled to a refund?

  2. "1. In 'the real world' no one is immune from losing their job"

    No, and the point of this blog is to say that academics shouldn't be either, if their employer feels that their performance isn't satisfactory. The more interesting question is what metrics should be used as the best indicator of performance?

    "2. If if academics need to bring in sufficient research income, maybe they should attend Sales & Marketing courses"

    I've often felt this. Scientists must be able to convince others that what they are doing is interesting and valuable (not financially, but in the sense of worth knowing even if just for the sake of knowing it).

    "3. Taking just one area of research "Climate", for instance, if a funder has preconceived ideas, should an academic prostitute him/herself to provide answers supporting the funder's objectives?"

    In my experience, funding bodies don't have "objectives" in the sense of preconceived answers they want to find. They do identify target areas of research, such as "the climate system", or in my case, "fluid flow in deformable porous media", but these are generally quite broad.

    "4. If an academic publishes research (funded fully or in part from public funds), which is subsequently found to be in error, should taxpayers be entitled to a refund?"

    Science is "in error" all the time. Scientists do the best they can with the evidence that is available to hand. Subsequent evidence, unknown to them at the time, can later prove them wrong. This is part of the scientific process, and should absolutely not be punished.

    Where a scientist has knowingly committed fraud - deliberately falsifying results, for example - that is a different kettle of fish, and I can see the case for a financial penalty of some kind. However, any scientist found guilty of such a crime will almost certainly never work in science again anyway. Whether that is punishment enough I don't know.

  3. Thanks for those explanations Dr JV

  4. Paul Homewood has just added an interesting & apposite post:

  5. I've been applying to academic positions for the last year, and finally gave up. I applied to over 40 positions all across the US. I was short-listed several times, and was actually solicited to apply for one position, but never managed a single interview. I heard back from one university that they had over 350 applicants. Another sent me a note that they had over 270 applicants. Academic science is broken if it can only offer job security to 1 in hundreds of people pursuing an academic career.

    I published 5 papers the last 5 years which is excellent productivity in my field. I was awarded a very competitive and prestigious fellowship. I'm a co-investigator on a newly funded project. My work was the basis for the last 5-year, multi-million dollar grant renewal awarded to my PI. But I didn't get one interview in over a year of trying, not even at nearby undergraduate colleges.

    If someone with tenure isn't keeping pace with research in their field well enough to bring in grant money routinely, they should be dismissed so that a new person gets a chance.

    1. Well anonymous, you've managed to summarise beautifully in 3 paragraphs what it took me over 2,000 words of rambling to get to the point. Fancy taking over on Frackland ;-) ?

      Good luck with the job hunt should you choose to continue it, and in another career should that end up being your path.

    2. On another topic would you be interested in giving an expert comment on this issue...

    3. It's difficult to make much comment without seeing either the report by the environmental consultants or data held by the EA. However, it sounds pretty inconclusive at this stage, the operative statements being: "Sarah Scott from the Environment Agency, disagreed with the findings in Dr Foley’s report" (the EA will likely have relevant data of their own), and also "He added it could have come from other sources – including the M62 and Barton Aerodome".